Winter 2015/16: Looking Back

When the snow started to fall in November the anticipation grew for a great winter. People started brushing the cobwebs off their skis and heading up high to find good snow. The Helbronner was the place to search with the Aiguille du Midi being closed. There was some good skiing to be had but it was short lived. The temperatures rose leading up to Christmas and the snow ceased to fall. Most of the early snow melted away and Christmas came and went with no real precipitation. As the new year rolled in it brought with it some snow, a lot of snow. Powder was plentiful and there were too many deep days to count. Spending a lot of time in Italy dodging trees and the odd day up high in Chamonix it felt like winter was in full swing.

As with every year I like venturing into new corners of the Massif to find new lines that I have yet to ski. This is always condition dependant, but this year the conditions have led me to certain areas that I would have otherwise passed by without a thought.

Couloir Chevalier was the first line of 2016. I had been to the top of this a couple of years ago but had to turn around because of the poor build quality of La Sportiva ski boots. Returning to this line in good snow and with Mikko and the Finns was a great morning out and it felt good to get back on the steeps.

Chamonix TOPO

Chamonix TOPO

Table Couloir, Aiguille du Tour . This was my first alpine route and I have wanted to return for 4 years. Heading up there with Tim was great even though it is a long way away from the top of Col du Passon and was a real slog up with deep powder. It is a great small, steep line that rarely gets skied because its not that long and quite far away.

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Mont Oreb North Face was next. Skiing with Mikko and Jesper is great, they always have a plan B. After we were turned around at the midi with ideas about a nice little line we headed back to the cars and straight over to Buet. Smashing the climb up we were treated with powder down this steep and exposed face and a nice little ski back to the car.

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Tricot NE Couloir is located near Bionassay on the other side of Les Houches. This was a new area for me after only seeing this line once when I skied trapper last year. A beautiful little steep tucked away from the crowds of the Chamonix Valley.

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Dent du Geant South Face started what almost felt like spring. Corn decent down to the Italian valley below. Warm temperatures had transformed the snow and with little else to ski it felt right to tick this classic off the list. When the clouds came in it did make route finding difficult but with a big cliff below we knew traversing high was the only option.

the line. Teton Gravity

the line. Teton Gravity

Les Courtes NE Spur is one to return to. Although we made it 2/3rds of the way up we had to stop at the choke because there was too much powder pouring down the face. It made crossing the slough dangerous. Nevertheless we were rewarded with several hundred meters of deep cold snow on this classic steep north face.

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We skied from the circle

Mont Mallet West Couloir is a little known steep line tucked away below the Dent du Geants north face. Deciding to climb the line first we put ourselves in the firing line of some very big searches and in a wild and impressive little corner of the Massif. What Mikko considered as a training day was one of the highlights of my winter.

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The line (Photo- Lucapandolfi.com)

Col de la Aiguille Vert was my baptism into real ‘extreme’ skiing, my first 5.4. This rarely skied line is over 50′ for its entirety and you get a real feel  for its steepness when your standing at the top. Cold snow and good company made the day feel a little tamer than it should have been and it felt easier than some other less steep lines I have skied in bad snow. It goes to show that the snow quality is what can change a grade.

topo camp to camp

Camp to Camp Topo

Tour Ronde North Face is another classic alpine climb I have done that I had always wanted to return to with skis. This spring it happened and after flying up the Gervasutti in no time at all we were staring down the upper face in boot top cold powder. What a descent. Skiing above the mandatory raps your mind is telling you you can’t fall the whole time. Once off the rope on the lower section your mind eases and you know you have passed the exposure test.

Mont Blanc du Tacul South Face is about as technical a line as I have skied. Weaving in and out of couloirs and with a few abseils thrown in for good measure it made for a gripping descent. Add to that a 5.4 grade and some hard snow on the cruxes and you have the most challenging day on skis for me. When the face started to pour down on us in the lower section it started to get scary and we were glad to make it out safely. Possibly the last day on skis for me this year, I will have to see what the conditions are like when I return in June after  a couple of weeks back in the motherland.

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Photo – Tom Grant

Another great winter has past with some epic days and also some scary ones. It has been great to explore more areas close to home and to make the most of my skis from Voile, they have been everything I have wanted and more. This summer will be more about climbing and moving faster in the mountains and I’m glad to have Salomon onboard to help me achieve more of my dreams.

 

 

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Tour Ronde North Face

After a week away in Corsica I was keen to get straight back out into the mountains. Seeing that Pete and Grant had skied the Tour Ronde North Face the day I arrived back and reported great snow I knew it was the time to go and bag this classic I had admired for years. The Tour Ronde is the first mountain I set my eyes on climbing on a summer trip to Chamonix 5 summers ago. When I climbed its north face for the first time in 2013 I was over the moon and have dreamt ever since of skiing it. I had already skied its east face, south face and the Gervasutti Couloir so the only face left was the North!

Heading towards it that morning with the intention of going solo I managed to convince my friend Ally Hurst to leave his group of four heading to the Diable and join me for some great snow. After he saw the face it didn’t take much convincing. We nervously crossed the big schrund on the Gerva and he stormed up the 350m couloir in 35 minutes. I was just behind with a chest infection, coughing my guts up in a time of 50 mins. Arriving back into the sun we took a look down the face. It still looked great, only 2 tracks and lots of good fresh snow to the sides. It was go time.

Dropping straight in and making controlled turns in the great snow felt amazing and I was so happy and content skiing this big and exposed face. Arriving at the abseil after 10 or 15 minutes we clipped in. Knowing that the exposed top face was the only thing playing in the back of our minds. Once on to the lower face after abseiling our worries were behind us and we could ski care free down and over the schrund. Arriving back at Montenvers just after 1pm we both had grins from ear to ear.

Col de l’Aiguille Verte

When Dave suggested this line I instantly became nervous. Even though I knew it was in good condition I had never skied anything this steep or this big before. With a toponeige grade of 5.4/5.5 E3 it is at the very upper end of skiable slopes. Known as one of the steepest sustained ice faces in the Alps it is not to be underestimated. I knew my ability could allow me to make turns on 50/55 degree slopes for short sections, usually cruxes on easier routes. This face would require me to make these controlled turns for over 700m of descent.

We could see tracks coming from the top and they looked good. With no signs of big sloughs coming down we headed up with light bags after stashing our gear just over the bergschrund. There was some evidence of a bootpack still there but we (Dave) mostly had to make a new one. Half way up the slope we were joined by a lone Frenchman Boris, who accompanied us to the top and enjoyed the descent with us. Near the top you make a traverse to the right and into the sun. Reaching the col my nerves were peaking and I knew what I had to do to get back down safely.

The first 100m was east facing and had a slight sun crust but still skied well. After the traverse back to the shady face the snow improved and so did the skiing. Making powder turns on 50+ degree slopes was a great feeling. Being in control and at the same time feeling madly out of control due to the location of the skiing, surrounded by towering faces and steep ice slopes.

Once we jumped the schrund it all sank in. A big fist bump and pat on the back and you could see our smiles from Argentiere. A short trip to retrieve our gear then a fun and fast descent to Argentiere and a quick drive to work. It is amazing how good snow can turn even the steepest line in to a fun day out, I have skied the cosmiques on crusty ice and I felt a lot more gripped! Thanks Dave for the fun day and for suggesting this truly superb line.

Mont Mallet West Couloir

Mont Mallet West couloir is tucked away on the north side of the Dent du Geant, along the ridge of the Periades. Normally you ski this line by climbing up the Breche Puiseux and climbing some mixed group to reach the shoulder of the Mallet. We decided to climb the line. This is not normally done because of the time spent exposed beneath the Noir seracs. We moved fast to minimise this exposure. First bin on weekend is now 7:30 and after Mikko exchanged multiple lift numbers we managed to get on the second bin and had our skins on by 8:30. I had skin malfunction within the hour and resorted to climbing with crampons.

The snow was very firm on the glacier and this did not slow us down. Upon arriving at the base of the couloir we started to get deeper with each step and soon we were wading up the couloir in nice powder snow. Ditching all our unnecessary gear at the bottom we made reasonable progress up the line sharing the trail breaking whenever I could. The sun had softened the harder sections of snow by the time we started skiing and it was good powder all the way down.

Somehow we made it to the train for 3:30 and I rushed to work at 4:40, ten minutes late. Very tired, and surprised to find good snow so long after the last snowfall.

Dent du Geant SF & Les Courtes NE Spur

A good couple of days spent in the mountains. Meeting Mikko at the lift for first bin we were already a couple of people short of our original 4 team so it meant more boot packing for the both of us. Heading over a very ominous looking bergschrund we started the boot pack up the NE Spur. Soon we were joined by Jose who came along with us and shared the effort. After being plastered by howling spindrift and heavy sluff for the most of the climb we came to the diagonal ramp about 2/3rds of the way up. Here the couloir narrows and the only way up was to climb through the heavy spindrift/ sluff that was puling down the face. We called it a day here. Strapped on our skis and enjoyed a great ski back down. At the bottom we crossed the bergschrund on a bridge that was not there 2 hours earlier when we started. Lots of moving snow!

The day after I was heading through the tunnel with Sleigh to search for some spring corn. I have admired the south face of the Dent du Geant for a couple of years now. Its a great looking hanging face that requires you to traverse to avoid the cliffs below. After a 2 hour mixed climb in the baking hot sun we reached the top of the line by 11:30. Starting off down the steepish couloir we found great spring powder that then turned into corn. Enjoying the descent we soon realised that we would have to start making the traverse to skiers right. Just as we started the traverse the thick cloud came in and we were in a white out.  Moving from ridge to ridge in the dense cloud was unnerving but we eventually found the exit ramp down to the Marbrees. Lots more spring skiing came after until we arrived back at the car. Great morning out.

Y Couloir and GM ridge M4 climb.

With unfinished business on the Aiguille d’Argentiere I headed up the Milieu alone to onsight the Y. Perfect corn awaited me and I had a truly amazing solo descent.

 

With the sun going away on Sunday it was time to get back on the tools. Heading up to a M4 climb on the GM ridge North Face with Tim Oliver around midday on Sunday we started the very thin climb with two parties ahead. Catching up with the slower pair at the crux we had a small wait to regain strength which was desperately needed given the tricky moves in difficult thin conditions. An awesome day out and some superb climbing.

 

 

 

 

Y Couloir, Aiguille d’Argentiere

This winter has made us look away from the norm. With the unstable snowpack and fresh snow falling on an irregular basis we have to consider alternatives. We went to have a look at the Y couloir on the Aiguille d’Argentiere which normally is a spring steep but we found it in condition mid February.

It was a scorching day and with the sun on your back things warm up very quickly. Plodding our way up the 500m+ reasonably narrow couloir we stopped when things started to get very loose and soft. Just after the split on the lookers right branch.

 

The snow was perfect spring corn on a firm base, and allowed for comfortable fast paced turns all the way down to the choke, which plays in your head the whole descent. Its a 20/30m ice and rock band that was definitely worth bringing two axes for on the way up.

A great ski and a classic line. Just need to go back and ski it from the top…

Early season steeps. Tour Ronde playground

Winter 2014 has not seen a great start. Chamonix saw some snow in early November but we are still waiting for a top up. With the recent foehn winds and relatively high temperatures the snow line has been going up rather than down. That being said there is good skiing to be had. With the Aiguille du Midi set to remain closed until the 20th of December it requires a short trip through the tunnel to La Palud to ski off the Italian side of the Vallee Blanche.

Last Wednesday Jon Luckhurst and I hiked up and skied down the East face of the Tour Ronde. It was in excellent condition and only required a small down climb half way down the face to avoid some big rocks. We were treated to cold blower powder but it was a trade off with high winds and truly Baltic temperatures!

Knowing that the Gervasutti on the Tour Ronde was skied that day by the likes of Briggs, Grant and Kilian (who reportedly lapped it 3 times!) I was keen to go back and ski this classic steep in good condition, direct from the col and better than I skied it in the spring.

 

The Gervasutti Couloir

The Gervasutti Couloir

Tim Oliver and Sleigh were psyched to get ‘radical’ even if it meant braving more arctic temps and an early season 350m bootpack at 3500m.

 

Setting off from the Torino refuge we knew it was going to be busy. Seeing crowds of people heading towards the Tour Ronde and Cirque Maudit we were a little apprehensive of what we would find. Upon arriving at the bottom of the couloir we saw 7 people booting up it. After digging deep and catching up with them only 4 were going back down, the others either skiing the North Face, which was in excellent condition or traversing to the east face via the summit. After a short wait for Sleigh we started off. Two skiers had gone down quick and steady on what looked like good chalky snow. The other two side slipped all 350m of the couloir and were a constant annoyance with the never-ending lumpy sluff. After some fast combat skiing I managed to get ahead of these two and exit the couloir as fast as I could. Fighting hot aches in the shade I awaited the other two before we headed back to the Torino for a sandwich in the sun.

 

Overall the conditions are good up high. Not sure how tracked out the east face was but people were up, skiing and climbing everywhere. It looked more like a spring day off the midi rather than the start of December! The Vallee Blanche is in desperate need of some snow before the midi opens to avoid a long and nervous walk out.

Col du Plan, Aiguille du Midi NF

Fifteen months after making my first off-piste turns I find myself clipping my skis on looking down a windy, powder covered arête with a Midi north face line in my sights.

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Teaming up with Dave Searle we were both excited and psyched to be stepping up our game and taking on the true steep skiing playground that is the Aiguille du Midi north face. Skiing straight out of the tunnel and down the arête was a first for me and it really filled me with confidence as we made our way along the midi-plan traverse towards the top of the Tournier spur entrance to Col du Plan. The wind was howling but the snow still looked good. We saw four tracks going down this entrance. It was nice to let someone else open this highly exposed line. Here we go…

Even after the arête warm up my first turns did take some building up to but once they came and went I was committed and ready to enjoy some steep powder. After the short traverse to the Col du Plan main face we encountered a brief icy section. A few instructional words from Dave I was over the difficulties and we had a couple hundred meters of cold steep powder before we hit the rappel. Waiting for the first group to rap we saw Bird coming in direct from the Col. It looked icy and we were glad we came in from higher up. He ripped it up, making huge turns down the face until he arrived with us and asked if he could tag along on our rope as his partners had abandoned him. Not wanting to leave him stranded, we said yes! After the initial two raps there was a short sideslip before the last small rap with skis on and we were out of the danger. I could see the mid station. Some more steep turns then it was smooth powder all the way back. Arriving at the plan with Dave and Bird it was high fives all round. It still has not sunk in that I had skied the North Face. Earlier on in the season I jokingly said to Tom that I would be ripping it up in my second season skiing but I didn’t say it with much confidence and definitely didn’t dream it would become reality.

 

I felt content with my accomplishment and headed back down as those boys went back up with the Eugster in their eyes. Meeting up with them after they ended up skiing a powdery Rond with big turns all the way down. What a day. Thanks to Dave and Bird for the company and ensuring we all made it home.

Aiguille d’Entreve, South East Face. 4.2 E2

Tuesday was spent in La Clusaz charging pistes and recovering from the Gervasutti and Paddys day. Heading into town early on wednesday I could already feel the heat at 7:45.  This was a good indication that we would have to move fast to ski something that wasn’t running water.

The South East face of the Aiguille d’Entreve is a beautiful line that works its way down from near the summit of the Entreve, towards the mid station of the helbronner cable car in Italy. Hoping for spring like conditions around midday we slowly plodded up and started traversing the ridge about 10:30. We were going to complete the traverse and return to our skis but after seeing a group drop in we knew we would have to ski it quickly to get the good snow.

The upper, 45′, section of the face was a little variable and chopped up but after a few turns it opened up to nice smooth spring snow all the way down to the bergschrund. Descending the glacier back to the station was a mixture of wind blown hard snow and deep thick slush that took strength to ski fast, especially on my skinny skis again!

Sitting with a good Italian coffee in the Torino refuge, over looking the face we just skied was a nice change to the coffee from the midi bakery I’m used to. Skiing the Valley Noir in perfect chalk down to the James Bond track we also had a little water skiing by Montenvers. Only taking skis off for the last 500m of the track before Plannards the James Bond is slowly going out of action. Lest hope for some much needed snow this weekend and make a few more powder turns before this season is out.